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Interview with Connie Chastain

 Connie, I’d like to welcome you to Readers’ Realm.
Thank you. I’m delighted to be here. A place online where readers and writers can come together is a great idea. A new construct of the publishing and book marketing industry is underway, and I believe creative methods for connecting readers and writers will become an essential part of it. Congratulations to Readers’ Realm for being on the leading edge of the change.

I’ve read reviews of your books on various blogs, and one phrase in particular caught my attention. A reviewer said of your writing that it was “silken prose.” Would you care to comment on that?

I was inordinately pleased with that review, and that phrase in particular, because it indicated to me that I had reached a level of success with my craft. There are born writers, people who have an inherent talent for writing, and judging by writers’ blogs and comment threads, there aren’t many of them. Like most other writers, I practice a craft I had to learn, and must continue to learn. It felt good to have it validated.

In the review of my novel, Southern Man, the reviewer’s entire phrase was, “…prose that’s concise and silky to read.” Conciseness is an integral component of silky (i.e., smooth) prose. My aim is to construct writing that pulls the reader along effortlessly, and concise, silky prose is essential for that.

How did you learn to write “silken prose?”

I began writing a novel back in the 1980s that sent me to the library looking for how-to-write books. I wanted to find instructions for writing long, complex sentences that would awe readers—but that they could follow and understand.  I had occasionally run across authors who could do that (Frances Parkinson Keyes was one, if memory serves) and I wanted to emulate that.

Fortunately, what I found was Rudolph Flesch’s How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively, which teaches just the opposite—simplified writing. It radically changed my approach to composition, and I don’t think I would have ever written a thing worth reading without it.

The first couple of chapters on language itself are interesting background, but Chapter Three, Sentences Come First, is the beginning of instructions any craftsman writer can benefit from. If I could have only one book on writing, it would be this one, and I highly recommend it to all writers. It appears to be out-of-print, but used copies are available online. Read it, heed it, and start spinning silky prose.

My writing also benefits from lessons learned in critique groups. For example, trust your reader and refrain from stating and restating the implied or understood. Use dialog tags only when necessary; readers can follow a conversation without them. Eliminate needless repetition in any form, and so forth.

It’s been said that writers must first be readers. Do you enjoy reading?

If it’s well-written, yes. I used to enjoy it a lot more than I do now. The Internet has damaged my abilities as a reader. In the past, everything readers saw had been edited, and they were accustomed to accuracy, at least in grammar and spelling. On the Internet, so much writing is raw and atrocious—bad spelling, bad grammar, chaotic composition… Online shorthand (B4 for before, U R for you are, etc.) further deteriorates both writing and reading skills.

But you get accustomed to anything if you see it enough. For most of my life, I differentiated between there, their and they’re, automatically and accurately. Now, I not only have to process them for correctness when I encounter them in reading—I sometimes use the wrong one when writing.

We’ve reached the point where readers are accustomed to bad writing. For those of us who know how, the process of filtering, interpreting and correcting bad writing as we read it has become necessary and habitual. It hampers my reading experience, even with good writing, and diminishes the enjoyment.

What genres do you read most?

I usually say contemporary romance but what I actually look for is mainstream fiction with a strong romantic subplot because that’s what I write. Before the 1980s, I read a little of everything—Ludlum thrillers, novels that would be called paranormal now, Tom Tryon’s The Other comes to mind, and Ammie, Come Home by Barbara Michaels; sci-fi, mostly of the space-opera sub-genre, but occasionally Crichton thrillers like The Andromeda Strain; and  nonfiction like Robin Lee Graham’s Dove.  I’ve tried reading a few classics over the years, but, frankly, I’ve never found one I could abide.

I would like to say Southern fiction is a favorite genre, because I love reading (and writing) about the South and Southerners, but so much Southern fiction denigrates the region and its people, so I’m wary of the genre and choose titles carefully.

Who are your favorite authors, and what makes them special to you?

Authors from the decades back. Rex Stout tops the list, followed by Frances Parkinson Keyes, Harper Lee, and Dixie Browning, a prolific category romance writer. Probably others I can’t remember right now.

Without doubt, my favorite novels are Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective series. Talk about writing concise, silky prose, Stout was a master at it.  He was a great story-teller, as well, and I’ve never encountered a writer of popular fiction who could do characterization better.  I read my first Wolfe book, Might As Well Be Dead, when I was twelve or thirteen, and became an instant fan. I was so happy to discover he’d written a whole series of Wolfe novels, and I’ve read them all over the years. I still read them, especially when I could use some inspiration for writing.

When did you decide you wanted to write?

The seed was planted in the 1970s by my brother-in-law, who read my long letters when he and his family were stationed overseas in the Navy, and said I “turned a good phrase” and ought to be a writer. Between that, and Archie Goodwin’s first-person missives, I actually started thinking in narrative and dialog in my late teens. I didn’t seriously attempt to write, though, until the 1980s. My first novel was a behemoth romance (approaching 190,000 words when I quit) with a depressed heroine, written in an era when category romances averaged 40,000 words and depressed heroines were verboten.  Of course, these days, nearly anything goes—crazy heroines, damaged heroes, and worse.

What has been your “writer’s journey”?

If that refers to Christopher Vogler’s screenwriting textbook, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, I’m not sure I’ve had one. If there’s mythic structure in my writing, it’s invisible to me.

However, my writer’s experience actually seems fairly common among craftsmen writers. Like many others, when it comes to creative fiction, I belong to the P.J. O’Rourke school of writing:

“Writing is agony. I hate it… When I’m writing, I spend a lot of time thinking, ‘My, doesn’t the top of the fridge look dirty’. It takes forever. People think writing is easy, but just ask them to sit down and write a thank you note to their aunt, or something, and they turn purple. I like thinking about writing. I like having written. But actually sitting down and doing it…”  P.J. O’Rourke to Christopher Bray of the U.K. Telegraph, 2005
I like to think about my stories, my characters and their motives, events and plot developments…but the thought of a writing session looming up fills me with dread.  Like P.J., I hate it.  But once I make myself do it, I can get something on the screen. It’s virtually always garbage, but I can work with garbage—using simplified writing to turn it into silky prose. So that’s my journey…forcing myself to write so I can rewrite.

My writer’s experience also involves discovering the messages and themes I want to express. One of my favorite themes is appearance versus reality—how a person, event, situation, family, etc., is perceived by those outside of it, juxtaposed with how it really is for those on the inside. That was one of the themes of Southern Man.  Events lead the hero’s co-workers to think his marriage is in trouble, but the reader sees it from the inside, where the strong bond between him and his wife sees him through a personal crisis.

Although I don’t write Christian fiction, precisely, (I write from a Christian worldview) one of my greatest motivators is to accurately portray good, decent people—Christians, Southerners—who are so often maligned in the popular culture. It’s part of my writer’s journey, I think, to honor faith, family and tradition in my stories, and to show the negative consequences of the counter-culture era I grew up in—the sexual revolution, the generation gap, the drug culture—that show up even decades later. Among other things, Southern Man is an indictment of the sexual revolution.

How many novels have you written, and how many of them have been published?

Counting the behemoth romance novel of the ’80s that will never see the light of day, I’ve written three, and have perhaps a dozen others in progress. Two have been published.  Southern Man was published by me under my imprint, Brasstown Books in print and electronic forms. Storm Surge is an ebook published by Desert Breeze Publishing.

What one piece of advice would you give to a beginning writer?

Study and learn. Is that two pieces of advice?  Or one with two parts?

In any case, if you’re not a talented (i.e., born) writer, you’re what the vast majority of writers are—a craftsman. So learn your craft. Take a creative writing course, read books, blogs, magazines on how to write. Read the kind of fiction you want to write, and analyze what makes the good, good and what separates it from the so-so and the bad. Join a local writers group if there’s one near you, for inspiration and support.  Find a really good critique group or partner.

And, of course, write.  Regularly and constantly.  None of this other stuff amounts to anything if you don’t write.  Make excellent writing and captivating storytelling your chief goals.  Make getting published a secondary goal. It will be more easily attainable if the chief ones are achieved.

As you learn to write, also learn everything you can about the publishing industry, and then immerse yourself in marketing and promoting both yourself and your work. This goes for the trad-pubbed as well as self- and indie-pubbed.  The responsibility for promoting and selling books increasingly falls on the author.  That may not always be so; nobody can predict how the elements of the changing publishing and bookselling industry will eventually end up.  But that is the reality for now.

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Connie Chastain is the author of Storm Surge and Southern Man.  You can find out more about her novels, works in progress, and writer’s journey at her website, ConnieChastain.com.

5 comments on “Interview with Connie Chastain

  1. Ann Gaylia
    March 5, 2012

    Thanks, Connie. I especially like your observation about writing from a Christian worldview rather than Christian fiction as such. It hit on the head what I’ve been struggling to express about my own writing.

  2. Topline Tack Press
    March 5, 2012

    Thank you for all the helpful suggestions on reading, Connie – I’ll be looking several of them up!

  3. sheilaodomhollinghead
    March 6, 2012

    Great advice on learning the craft! Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Connie Chastain
    March 6, 2012

    Ann, I think there are people who would shy away from Christian fiction, but don’t mind stories written from a Christian worldview. After all, that is the worldview of U.S.. culture and most other western nations. Those utterly opposed to Christianity in particular and religion in general might object, but I suspect they’re not the majority of readers.

    Topline, glad my suggestions are helpful!

    Sheila, learning the craft of writing is a wonderful adventure I have enjoyed immensely. It doesn’t make me like the process of writing any better (LOL) but it helps me produce writing I can be pleased with.

    Love the new blog; will check in regularly. Thanks to all who brought it to fruition.

  5. Clay Grzybowski
    March 8, 2012

    WONDERFUL Post.thanks for share.

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2012 by in Author Interviews and tagged .

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